Neil Shubin: The Universe Within

Neil Shubin, a paleontologist and biologist, spoke about the common ancestry of rocks, planets, and humans in his talk, The Universe Within. In his fieldwork in Ellesmere Island in northern Canada, Neil Shubin and his team found a fossil of a flat-headed fish with feet, the Tiktaalik roseae, an ancient species that marks the transition of animals moving from water to land. The rocks that the fish were found in outline human history, including with the tetrapods that we evolved from. Geography is proof of how the universe was formed, and the layers of the sediments are like a timeline of the universe’s history. The universe is a series of causes and effects, starting with the Big Bang and the creation of the elements and atoms. Everything that has brought humans to this point in time is the product of billions of years of evolution and the interactions between the universe, the solar system, the planet Earth, and the life forms that inhabit the planet.

When plant life began moving out of the water that covered early Earth, the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere two billion years ago allowed animals to live on land. Tectonic plates colliding and rising up spurred the creation of mountains, making mountains as large as Mt. Everest have seashells at the top because that land was once at the bottom of an ocean. Antarctica originally existed near the equator and was a tropical rainforest. The coal in present day Antarctica is a small sample of proof of the supercontinent Pangaea from millions of years ago. According to Neil Shubin, “rocks are like a book” that not only tell a story of Earth’s history, but also the history of the species that once lived on the planet, embedded in the layers of Earth’s sediment, written in the materials made from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.

Evolution has allowed humans to question their own existence. The astronomer, Williamina Fleming helped create a system for measuring the distance of stars by relating the real brightness of a star to the apparent brightness with numerical data. Croll came up with the mathematical theory of ice ages, based on the Earth’s tilt and wobble impacting the waxing and waning of ice. The orbits and formations of the universe determine who we are today. Our atoms may have come from parts of other worlds, and in the future, our atoms will be parts of different worlds.

Neil Shubin made me contemplate the connections and cause and effect relationships between everything in our universe. His talk made me feel small, pondering that we are nothing but a Pale Blue Dot and a branch on the tree of life. Earth and the intelligent life on it is not at the center of the universe, and an explosion of energy in the Big Bang created the elements and materials necessary for the countless planets and stars in our solar system. Evolution has shaped humans to the point where we are self-aware of the fact that we are in a tiny corner of the universe and that all of the universe’s history led us here. The universe created life forms that can ponder their own existence, simply because of a long string of events that brought us here.

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